If you’ve ever flown an airplane before, you know how crucial it is to have clear and constant contact with air traffic control centers. One hundred thousand commercial flights take off every day meaning that millions of air to ground communications are taking place (Source).
With that in mind, the best handheld aviation radios (also known as VHF radios) can simplify communication, ensure that flight protocol is met, and help you navigate through potential emergencies.
A handheld aviation radio connects to a group of frequencies in the VHF spectrum called airband, reserved specifically for aviation purposes. It uses frequencies between 108 and 137 MHz and allows you to connect to specific regional channels based on your flight path (Source).
Because of the altitude of airplanes, handheld aviation radios often have an impressive range and long battery life. They allow you to connect with other aircrafts, airlines, and airports. A handheld aviation radio is also important for sending out distress calls.
Handheld aviation radios are lightweight and comfortable to hold. They’re essential if you’re an amateur or professional pilot. However, they can also be useful for engineers and radio enthusiasts.
Prior to purchasing a handheld aviation radio, you’ll have to consider if it has any audio-boosting technology that improves audio quality. You’ll also want to look how big or small the display is, and how many channels it can remember. Finally, the transmission range and battery life should factor into your decision.
Don’t take flight again without getting clearance for take-off from one of these top-rated handheld aviation radios.
Which Handheld Aviation Radio Is The Best?
Table of Contents
- 1 Which Handheld Aviation Radio Is The Best?
- 2 What Is An Airband?
- 3 Comparing The Best Handheld Aviation Radios
- 4 1. Icom IC-A14 – Best Overall
- 5 2. Yaesu FTA750L – Most Versatile
- 6 3. Yaesu FTA550L – Best Value
- 7 4. Icom IC-A24 – Water Resistant & Rugged Surface
- 8 5. Baofeng UV-5R UHF/VHF – The Lightest Option
- 9 What Is The Purpose Of A Handheld Aviation Radio?
- 10 Which Handheld Aviation Radio Equipment Can You Use For Air Traffic Control?
- 11 Main Factors to Look Out for When Purchasing a Handheld Aviation Radio
- 12 Ready To Buy The Best Handheld Aviation Radios?
ICOM-A14 is undoubtedly a top choice for handheld aviation radio communication. With a large 2000mAh LI battery, it tends to keep the power in this device running for an incredible 15 hours on a complete charge.
The A14 is certainly an incredible device for communication with high-end reliability. It does need to require initial programming to calibrate for usage. That can be time-consuming. However, after adapting to the programming, you will find it perfect for your use.
Furthermore, the ICOM-A14 is competitively priced for giving you a dependable communication device for aviation purposes. You can also expect the battery backup to retain for long term use if you use it only when needed.
What Is An Airband?
An avionic radio or Airband is a device used by Air traffic control and pilots to communicate with each other. The significance of an airband radio is inevitable for aircraft pilots that need to navigate their planes at airfields, etc.
These radios use VHF channels and frequencies, which are distinct from other channels used for communication. Airband radios operate in a frequency range of 108 to 137 MHz.
Airband radio devices have two primary uses – navigation and voice communication. Even though GPS has become mainstream, navigation channels are still operational through the use of VOR or VHF Omni-Directional Radiofrequency.
VOR utilizes navigation over a short-range for understanding the position of an aircraft through radio signals received by a ground radio station. VOR stations operate at various frequencies to assist planes when in need.
Furthermore, airbands incorporate a frequency for emergencies as well, which is called as International Air Distress. IAD operates at a frequency of 121.5 MHz. A button is provided in an aircraft that instantly sends a distress signal to the nearest air control tower when in need.
Comparing The Best Handheld Aviation Radios
1. Icom IC-A14 – Best Overall
The unit is light and very well made with a compact body that fits nicely in your hand. There are no sharp edges but it’s quite rugged, so it provides a firm grips making it easy to hold it. It seems simple and smaller than most of its other competitors, but its performance is remarkably good with regards to reception and transmission of audio.
The sensitivity of the antenna is very good and is even able to catch the weakest of signals. It’s backed by a 700mW BTL amplifier that boosts the audio output. Plus the noise from the surrounding is greatly reduced during transmission. So, you get loud and clear audio even when standing in high-noise areas like near a running helicopter or plane.
Aside from clarity, the transmission range of this IC-A14 radio is also quite impressive. You can receive transmissions from almost 25 miles away and transmit more than 5 miles. It’s an ideal model for airport operations both ground and in flight.
The unit offers a total of 200 memory channels and you can group them into 10 memory banks for fast and simple operation. It receives both NAV and WX channels. And there is a NOAA weather receiver that allows weather reception from very far even beyond the range of most standard airport stations.
Why the Icom IC-A14 Is Our Top Pick
The best part is that you will not have to worry much about the battery dying on you wherever you are out on the field. It features a 2000mAh Lithium-Ion battery which is the largest capacity on this list. It will provide stable output power and can last over 15 hours on a single charge.
To sum it all, the IC-A14 is a simple but highly reliable radio that does its job well. The only minor issue you will face is programming it. It’s a little tough at first and can take a while to get the hang of it but once you get it down, it’s flawless.
If you are looking for reliability at a good price, then this the radio for you. It’s the perfect option for small cockpits, ground use and as an emergency backup in any aircraft. Plus the display has a backlight which stays lit once you turn it on.
2. Yaesu FTA750L – Most Versatile
The rig is solid and all connectors are protected by rubber boots. So, it can hold up well to frequent use although it falls a bit on the heavy side. The buttons are small but have a great tactile feel which makes it easy to operate them even for people with big fingers.
The display is slightly larger compared to the other models and although it does not match that of an iPhone, it’s legible with enough contrast to allow you to read it in bright sunlight. In terms of performance, the FTA750 is certainly one of the most diverse radios you will get. It provides clear and quality communication whether flying through the air or operating on land.
The antenna is in good shape and is powered by an 800mW amplifier that provides adequate power to pick up signals. The squelch function works well and quickly. It is easy to adjust if you want to pick up weak or distant signal. So, the unit does provide a solid connection.
Further Review of the Yaesu FTA750L
Aside from the clear communication, another thing to like about this unit is the robust navigation system that it has. It offers VOR and ILS navigation with the addition of a GPS navigation system.
The GPS receiver is quite reliable. The only gripe is that you have to load the waypoints manually but you get to navigate to them with accuracy. The battery charges fairly quickly and has a large capacity (1800mAh). It can last more than 10 hours with a single charge.
Programming it is a little involving and does not seem to pair with iOS devices. These are the only two issues that you are likely to face with this Yaesu FTA750 model. Otherwise, it’s a solid unit that packs in a lot of great features.
If you are looking for a more advanced aviation radio that can effectively serve as back up comm and nav radio in case of an in-flight radio failure, then the Yaesu FTA750L will serve you well.
3. Yaesu FTA550L – Best Value
The unit is built to last. The case is very solid including the antenna and the whole body is rugged to provide sufficient hand grip. It will handle hard knocks as well as withstand the elements as it also features an IPX5 water protection setting.
You will also be able to comfortably use this Yaesu radio in different situations. The display is large and clear in bright sunlight, and the backlight is adjustable which makes it a breeze to operate it in low light conditions.
The quality of sound and reception is excellent. The antenna captures transmissions easily and similar to the FTA750L, it’s powered by an 800mW amplifier. So, it will pick up distant signals that most other devices would miss. The maximum transmission range is 5 miles.
More on the Features of the Yaesu FTA550L
As for navigation, the FTA550L is a very capable device but not to the level of the FTA750L. It can effectively pick up VOR signal and automatically shift to the NAV screen where it shows a CDI according to the received signal.
The unit also supports ILS localizer navigation but not ILS glideslope navigation plus it does not have a GPS function. These are the only two main things that put the FTA750L model ahead of it. You can program up to 200 channels and assign each a name using 15 alphanumeric characters. It’s a bit easier to program compared to the FTA750L and the Li-Ion battery pack is good too. It can hold charge for at least 10 hours.
Generally, the biggest differences between the FTA550L and the FTA750L, are the GPS and ILS glidescope navigation. Other than these everything else is pretty much similar. It’s a solid unit that can last for years and does its work as expected. If you primarily need a radio for communication functions but don’t mind having some navigation capability, then this is an option worth considering.
4. Icom IC-A24 – Water Resistant & Rugged Surface
For a start, the IC-A24 has a solid, water-resistant construction with a rugged surface like all the other models on this list. It’s light and fits nicely in the hand. The keypad is well labelled and the buttons are not rigid. They respond quickly when pressed.
The display is larger than that of the IC-A14 which is a big plus as it’s easy to see and it shows both number and letters. You will also have no problem operating this Icom radio at night. The keypad, as well as the display, are backlit and unlike other models where the light goes off after some time, this stays on until it’s turned off.
Now one of the areas that Icom radios continue to beat most of their competitors, is their ability to pick up signals. Their models provide unrivalled reception and this IC-A24 model cements that reputation.
Whether in the air or on the ground, the antenna of the radio provides great reception. It’s powered by a 700mW amplifier which further boosts its sensitivity to transmission signals. You will be able to pick up even the faintest of signals with this unit.
But it’s not just the great reception. The audio quality of this Icom model is equally superb. It utilizes the auto-noise limiting technology and also allows you to control the gain on the microphone. So, the audio signals transmitted come out loud and very clear even when you are operating in a noisy environment.
Further Reviewing The Icom IC-A24
For navigation, the unit comes equipped with VOR navigation functions that can help you stay true to course throughout. It has a good DVOR function that displays the radial to/from a VOR station and a CDI mode to show the course deviation to or from a VOR station.
The battery management, however, is not the best. There is no indicator to show the actual charge in the battery but it does give out an alert signal before it shuts down. Nonetheless, the battery capacity is good. It can provide you with more than 15 hours of continuous use.
Well, the only other issue to worry about is probably programming which is not that hard but just a little bit challenging. Once everything is set, accessing the channels is easy.
To sum it all, the IC-A24 is a reliable aviation radio that’s built to last. It’s a good alternative to the Yaesu FTA550L if you are looking for reliability with regards to voice transmission and has the added benefit of the VOR navigation function.
5. Baofeng UV-5R UHF/VHF – The Lightest Option
The unit is strong and sturdy with a cast that’s made from a durable material which makes it ideal for rough usage. In terms of weight, this is the lightest model on this list and feel very comfortable to hold. The screen is fairly large while the buttons are nicely spaced, so it can be operated easily.
Although it does not feature any navigation function, the unit receives and transmits quite well. The stock antenna is powered by a 700mW amplifier. It has a strong reception and it’s replaceable should it start to malfunction.
However, the highlight of this Baofeng radio is the fact that it allows two-way communication and the voice transmission on both ends is loud and clear. Along with this, the voice prompts work great. You can easily use it in the dark or single-handed without having to look at it.
It can support up to 128 channels which is a bit low compared to the other models above but if you are not a heavy user, it will do just fine. The battery capacity, on the other hand, is fairly large and can last more than 12 hours with moderate usage.
The only major setback with this handset is that it does not feature any navigation function. However, it will not pose any challenges when it comes to programming the channels.
Overall, it’s a solid unit with good value for money and an ideal choice if you are looking for an affordable handheld radio specifically for communication purpose.
What Is The Purpose Of A Handheld Aviation Radio?
It is essential to secure communication between ground control and an aircraft pilot at all times. While the transceivers and radio systems in the plane are capable, it does not guarantee that it will function properly throughout the flight.
That’s why a backup radio is needed to communicate with the crew at all times. Besides, the crew on the ground requires a portable radio to keep in communication with the pilot for guiding him/her on the airfield.
That’s where a handheld aviation radio serves its purpose to let the communication stay seamless. These devices receive and transmit audio signals through the radio waves for clear and loud interaction.
Additionally, they comprise of a rugged and sturdy design to withstand airfield and aircraft hazards. As they are portable, they use a battery backup, which is enough for them to last a couple of hours when in use.
These radios also have an impressive range to keep the communication secure between ground control and aircraft. That way, aviation personnel can avoid accidents.
Which Handheld Aviation Radio Equipment Can You Use For Air Traffic Control?
Plenty of handheld aviation radios are available nowadays. However, not all are suitable for aviation communications. Specific rules and compliances need to be followed by such equipment.
Here are some of them:
- The radio device that you are using needs to have approval from EASA or Civil Aviation Authority.
- The components used in the handheld radio device should be approved by an organization that is accredited by the Civil Aviation Authority.
Furthermore, when you use a radio, you need to limit your communication related to the flight regulation only. The two-way communication through such radios needs to be short for easier processing of verbal communication.
Main Factors to Look Out for When Purchasing a Handheld Aviation Radio
Selecting a handled aviation radio will majorly depend on your particular needs. However, there are certain key things that need to be considered so as to ensure you get the best value for your money. Some of the most important features you should pay attention to include:
1. Build Quality
The design and quality of construction are vital when it comes to selecting a handheld aviation radio because it will determine its durability as well as ease of use. If you are going to use the radio frequently, you should ensure that the case is solid and sealed well. The surface should be fairly rugged to facilitate a firm grip when holding the radio in your hand.
The next thing you should evaluate is how user-friendly the handset is for your needs. This will majorly depend on the size of the keypad and the display. A unit with a small keypad and display will be hard to read and operate. So, you want to make sure that both are large because the larger they are, the less challenging it will be to read and use the handset.
It’s also important to be able to operate the radio in low-light conditions or at night. As such, you should ensure that both the keypad and display have a backlight so that when you press a button they both light up allowing you to easily operate the device without straining much.
2. Quality of communication
The prime purpose of a handheld aviation radio is to facilitate communication and as such, one of the vital things that it should provide is a great reception. The key things to check here is the sensitivity of the antenna and the wattage of the amplifier because the power output for all handheld radios is limited to 5 watts of transmit power. So, it will not change much.
Handheld aviation radio is quite similar to walkie talkie as they are basically designed to facilitate communication among pilots. It might not be used as a walkie talkie for your kids. If you want your kids to communicate with each other while playing, biking, hiking, and so on consider buying the best walkie talkies for kids. Stay clear your children love to chat with their friends in secret whenever they wish to.
3. The Sensitivity of the Antenna
Most units have stock antennas and though they are not the best they still have good sensitivity. In this case, you might want to go with a whip antenna over the stubby antennas. The latter is highly portable. You can easily put it in your pocket but can reduce the range by up to 30%.
However, a whip antenna offers a longer range despite being a bit tall to fit in a pocket. It’s more effective at picking up signals.
4. Amplifier Capability
Aside from the antenna, the amplifier of a handled aviation radio plays a significant role in determining its ability to effectively pick up signals. It does not actually make audio transmission over the radio better considering that the power output of handled radios is limited to 5 watts.
However, it helps power the antenna making it more sensitive to signals. Therefore, you should consider a unit that has a powerful amplifier. One that will be able to pick up the faintest of signals that most other ordinary communication devices would miss.
The ideal option here is an amplifier that offers 700mWh or above. The higher the better but 700 to 800mWh is sufficient for most handheld aviation radios. It’s enough to enable a proper stock antenna to pick up even the weakest of signals.
On top of having a good antenna and a powerful amp, you should also consider units that have an auto-noise limiting technology. The Icom IC-A14 and IC-A24 above are good examples.
They both have an Auto Noise Limiter for noise reduction. This is quite an essential feature to have because you will be operating in a noisy environment. Therefore, you need the audio to be loud and clear, and the auto noise limiter can facilitate that.
Not all handheld aviation radios will offer navigation functionalities. Nonetheless, it’s an essential feature that you must consider if at all you are not looking for a COMM-only transceiver. That said, almost every NAV/COM handset is equipped with at least one form of navigation while others have a robust system equipped with multiple types of navigation.
The most basic models offer VOR and even ILS receivers which are quite useful when flying IFR. Along with VOR, some units will feature CDI which makes navigating even easier. The more advanced models have also GPS system installed.
Generally, the kind of navigation system you will need will come down to the type of operation you fly. However, it’s much better to go with a unit that’s versatile so that you will be able to utilize different navigation options without having to get another device.
Having a good and reliable battery is paramount especially because you are going to use your handset as a backup or during emergencies. Most units will come equipped with Li-Ion battery while there are some that have a battery pack consisting of AA-type batteries.
Between the two, Li-Ion batteries are the most ideal because they are rechargeable and last very long. AA-type batteries also last for long but will always have to carry spare batteries plus they require more attention from you so that you can replace them on time. So, Li-Ion batteries have a big advantage which makes them a good option.
There are so many factors to look at when evaluating the quality of handheld aviation radio. However, these four are the main areas you want to focus your attention on. They will help you determine the durability, functionality, and usability of each radio based on your particular needs and as such be able to make the right choice.
Ready To Buy The Best Handheld Aviation Radios?
Aviation is a very challenging field, one where everything has to be in order to ensure the safety of all those on board. Therefore, effective and reliable communication is very important.
The five handheld aviation radios on our list stand out the most amongst their peers in terms of reliability and quality. They are some that are quite versatile like the Yaesu FTA750L and FTA550L while others like the Icom IC-14 and IC-24 offer very effective communication capabilities.
Handheld aviation radios are similar to walkie talkie as they are two-way transceivers. In case, you want communication easier whenever you’re hiking, exploring the outdoors or simply playing with your kids consider buying top-rated walkie talkie watches.
All in all, the type of handset that you will select will ultimately depend on your specific needs and there is a wide variety of handheld aviation radios on the market to choose from. But if you don’t want to go through all that trouble, then you can consider one of the options above.
In case you are an engineer, a scientist or an amateur radio enthusiast, buying top-rated ham radio is a perfect fit as it can be used in long-range communication whether socializing or case of emergency.